These days no self-respecting workshop instructor goes half an hour without mentioning negative space. So prevalent has this stylistic concept become that it’s currently central to practically all types of pictorial composition. In my own work, the “backwardosis” of negative space is as vital as breathing. Here are a few tips if you too would like to see it happen:
Negative space strengthens compositions by solidifying form and building design. It also helps work to look “painterly.” In order to make magic with negative forms you need to “set up” your positive forms. In the early stages of a composition these positive forms — in realistic work they are often foreground objects — can be juggled and juxtaposed with an eye to the potential shapes and “holes” that form around them. This requires what I call “one-two thinking” — the ability to think ahead to further moves that might happen later in the game. Watching some painters, particularly beginning painters, it’s this one-two thinking that is most frequently lacking. Simply stated, one-two thinking permits creators to make plans where lights or darks might later be spotted through foliage, furniture, figuration, or some other veil. If you’re not sure about this, try doing some regular “one-one thinking” — and see how relatively uninteresting the stuff starts to look. “One-one” is okay for sign painters, but not for fine painters.
Think of negative space as a sort of musical counterpoint. It’s an embellishment to a main theme, played in pianoforte, pianissimo, or somewhere between. Counterpoint adds a secondary motif that rings the clear bells of beauty, mystique and quality. Here begins the magic of abstraction. It’s this abstraction, subtle or strong, that makes your work live as a thing-in-itself and become something unique and different from what it represents. Taken to extreme, I call it “contrapuntal overemphasis,” terminology that when thrown around the studio, makes visitors groan. I have to tell you that high action around negative space is the moxie that brings noses right up to the work. Even though it’s “negative,” it’s good stuff.
PS: “Spaces between the forms, or the negative shapes, play just as great a role as the positives. The positives make the negatives and negatives make the positives.” (Stan Smith) “A painter is a choreographer of space.” (Barnett Newman)
Esoterica: The rendering of negative space can be confusing. As Charles Reid says, “A positive object in relation to one background area can become a negative shape when another object cuts in front of it.” A simple exercise is to devise and execute a composition where you concentrate on painting the areas around objects rather than the objects themselves. Just keep saying this mantra: “Objects are held by the backgrounds that are cut into them.”
This letter was originally published as “Negative space” on August 5, 2005.
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“Fill a space in a beautiful way.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
Design is the foundation of any painting and you want your paintings to have powerful designs filled with exciting color. In this course we will discover designs two hidden meanings around where you put your center of interest plus how to use neutrals to make your paintings glow and finally add sensual edges that are the soul of the painting.
This workshop will be a live virtual event. I will be there with you during the entire four days. I can’t wait as I am excited. Please email me if you have any questions….email@example.com
August 31 – September 3, 2020, Location…Online
My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.